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Addressing the over-heated elephant in the room

We stand corrected, and offer an apology to our readers, and anyone who took offence at wording that was shaped literally in the heat of reporting a major story.

The overheated elephant in the room … that’s what we need to address as media and citizens today, and in coming days.

For several months, CN Rail lines have been targeted by protesters across Canada. There’s a sharply-edged opinion, and sadly, injurious division on that activity, and the complex history and motivation leading to it.

Suddenly, a CN rail building in Prince Rupert goes up in flames on Sunday, March 1.

Only the naive or uninformed would not pause a moment to ask themselves whether it was a coincidence, or something more.

Unfortunately, speculation in Prince Rupert quickly ran rampant.

The Northern View initially had few answers for the many queries and allegations, and the RCMP and fire department were too busy doing their jobs to respond to the querying calls of journalists trying to get the facts, and address the surmising and assumptions.

So we said: “No word whether its associated with blockade protests.”

We do not lie. We do not assume. We do not incite. We just tell you what we know when we know it. And if we don’t know, we will tell you that, i.e. “No word whether its [sic] associated with blockade protests.”

However, in retrospect, within a calmer context, it was not a good choice for a supplementary headline. Choosing those words to be published, we allowed some readers to infer that since there was “no word,” there may indeed be suspicion of a link between the protests and the blaze. Little doubt that was considered by the law enforcement authorities investigating such incidents, but as a leading media agency in British Columbia, we should have been more cautious to avoid playing an unintended role in influencing public opinion – and more importantly, fanning speculation – in this respect.

For that, we stand corrected, and offer an apology to our readers, and anyone who took offence at wording that was shaped literally in the heat of reporting a major story.

Perhaps those reading this editorial might ask whether the same self-reflection and acknowledgment has occurred with other major news agencies in Canada, which were asking the same questions. The day after the fire, several reported what we did – addressing the same obvious question in the minds of many people, although perhaps in better nuanced terminology.

Consider the following statements that were reported country-wide, by various national media outlets.

• Cpl. Devon Gerrits of the Prince Rupert RCMP said the incident isn’t believed to be related to recent protests at CN Rail sites across the country, some of which have involved small fires. Police are working to determine a motive.

• RCMP said the suspect is a youth, adding there is “no known motive” for the fire as of yet, but they believe it is not connected to recent protests that have impacted railways across the country.

Those were the statements, and emerging “facts” which media had to work with in the hours after the destructive blaze. All eventually addressed the absence of evidence linking the CN roundhouse fire to the protest activity.

Examining those statements with hindsight, there was indeed “word” regarding the fire’ and political action. Police were trying to stress no evidence of connection at the time. We wish to make that point again, now.

Given the speed of rumours, and unconfirmed “facts” on social media, journalists often find themselves chasing a very fast, and dangerous beast – misinformation – formed by bias, and special agendas, and pure guesswork on the part of individuals who may have no knowledge of the facts at all.

It is the information world in which we live and work.

As Cpl. Gerrits stated, “It was a hot topic, everyone was asking about it.”

Perhaps the lesson here, for everyone, is to think, cool off, practice patience, and wait for answers based on verifiable information. Also please understand, unlike social media, that may not be immediately forthcoming – as dissatisfying as that might be in an instant-answer world. We’re there with you.

- Todd Hamilton, publisher